Rediff Logo News Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 13, 2000


Search Rediff

Shoba Narayan

My Own New York

E-Mail this column to a friend

Little more than a year ago my husband and I moved to New York City with our then 8-month-old daughter Ranjini. I had always wanted to live in Manhattan and my husband's job brought us there.

We had doubts about our move then. Was a teeming city a good place to raise a child? Would a Manhattan apartment be able to accommodate the numerous houseguests that most Indian families enjoy (or are burdened with, depending on whom you ask and when). Would my husband with a professed dislike for Manhattan because he didn't like to 'walk on the streets and smell urine all the time' learn to like living there?

It took us a year to get used to the new and improved New York. Central Park became our backyard and our daughter's playground. We had pizza picnics there, attended open-air concerts, and jogged in the park where guilt overtook our inclination towards the sedentary life. Lincoln Center was our concert hall and offered everything from Asha Bhosle to Hema Malini's dance drama, Durga. We attended a few 'Mostly Mozart' concerts to reassure ourselves that we were not skimping on our absorption of Western culture. Even our guests from India were happy: there were a series of 'Everything $ 10' shops up the road, they had museums to go to, Bloomingdale's to window-shop at and the India area which was only one subway-ride away. We could order samosas by the phone and have them home-delivered, carry on a conversation in Hindi with our cab-driver and go to Little India to satisfy the urge to mingle with other sari-clad, betel-chewing Indians.

In spite of its numerous charms, it is not the convenience or the cosmopolitan air of Manhattan that I find fascinating. For me, the attraction of Manhattan is neither its new clean, green streets nor its safe neighborhoods. It is not the museums that I enjoy on occasion. It is not the proximity of Indian restaurants or the Hindu temple which I take advantage of. It is not the stylish people who I gawk at just like everyone else. It is not the vibrant energy that seems to propel everyone upwards.

Me, I love New York because it is very much like living in India. During the mandatory discussions about when and if one returns to India that occur whenever desis meet, I have a few choice lines that I throw in. "Live in New York and you can live in India. New York should be the stopover en route to India for successful assimilation back home."

New York's attraction is not just its immigrant character. There are more Indians in the San Francisco Bay area. But the character of the immigrants here is somehow more authentic. You don't meet high-falutin, wealthy Indians who have lost their accents and with it the grit, abrasiveness, and spontaneous generosity that characterizes India.

In New York, you meet the cab-driver from Kerala who refused to take money from my uncle because he spoke Malayalam; you meet the fruit-vendor from Jalandar who welcomes you in Hindi and offers a free, albeit crushed banana to your infant daughter in exchange for a smile; you meet the open-faced Bengali gas-station attendant who cheerfully admits that he flushed his visa and passport papers down the airplane toilet and landed in America seeking political asylum. At night, when you take a post-prandial saunter, after a heavy Indian meal, you see the tired, shrivelled face of the Bangladeshi newspaper-vendor and realize with a start that there are others not as fortunate as yourself. You buy a newspaper from him, not because he is out there in the cold and has a wife and kids waiting at home, but because he could, under other circumstances be you.

New York rubs away the soporific numbness that the streamlined, bountiful shopping malls of suburbia induce. Life is played out here in a myriad ways that is always challenging, sometimes frustrating, but never boring.

The stench of urine that my husband dislikes is what we will be confronted with when we go back home. When I was growing up in Madras, we had a roaming cow that used our front gate for its pit stop.

There is one word in the English language that Indians constantly use and live by: adjust. When the jet-setting businessman gets caught by the customs official for smuggling electronic goods into Delhi, he slips a few notes into the officer's hands and says, "Adjust karo, saab." When my brother inches into a busy intersection, ignoring the whizzing cars, he is acting under the assumption that the traffic will 'adjust' to his arrival.

When my mother goes to Nalli in Madras to buy silk saris and pays less than she is supposed to, she says, "Adjust pannu, pah." When the receptionist at a hotel tells me that she doesn't have any record of my reservation and therefore no rooms for me, she says confidently, "Why don't you adjust somewhere for one night? I will definitely find you a room tomorrow."

Indians are always adjusting as are New Yorkers. In no other city or town in America does the word 'adjust' play out in such creative ways. The traffic, of course, is something you have to adjust to. When I drive in New York, my modus operandi is remarkably similar to when I drive in Madras. I get into the car, take off blindly and curse all the other drivers, particularly the cabbies, a halo of self-righteousness shining peacefully around my head. I am unconsciously imitating my father who rants and raves against the Indian auto-rickshaw drivers everytime he drives.

"Look at how he just merged into traffic without even an indicator," my father says in outrage, conveniently forgetting that he just did the same thing. "These auto-rickshaws should be banned. Only then will traffic get civilized. Hey, watch where you are going. Haven't you heard of brakes? Use them. Look at that girl on the scooter. She just swerved in front of me without even seeing me. I don't know why they are still manufacturing scooters. They are worse than auto-rickshaws. Swerving in and out of traffic without... What are you honking at? I had the right of way. I tell you these bus-drivers think they own the road. If we remove buses and lorries from Indian roads, there will be far less accidents." And so he goes.

I do the same thing in New York, with several choice expletives against pedestrians, cabbies and buses. Thankfully, my daughter is still a baby and doesn't understand English expletives. Or maybe she does and will soon start mouthing expletives in lieu of her first words. Wouldn't that be ironic? A true New York baby, cussing and swearing right through her infancy.

Then, of course, there are the parades, police officers and ongoing construction that one has to contend with in New York on a daily basis. When a police officer blocks an intersection and tells people that they cannot cross Fifth Avenue but will have to walk 20 blocks down because of the Hungarian Day parade or the Parade of Uzbekistan, or the annual march of the People from Timbuctoo or whatever it may be that day, New Yorkers don't blink. They either quietly adjust by walking down twenty blocks, or slipping past the barricade when the police officer turns the other way to chastise another pedestrian.

When bricks fall from a skyscraper effectively blocking midtown, or Mayor Giuliani announces a taxi-less day in the city, New Yorkers grumble loudly but 'adjust' anyway. They take trains, walk or use public transportation.

People in other cities may hold hearings to find out which public official is bending the law and how much, but New Yorkers know better. They make jokes against the mayor on night-time television, splash his name on buses with jeering slogans, berate him in newspaper columns and go their merry way.

It is this unending creative flexibility that marks life in New York that makes it a prototype for living in India. Honking cabbies, stinking urine, homeless beggars, strident activists and all -- the parallels between India and New York are remarkable. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

Previous: Demonstrations Against Rocker Planned

Tell us what you think of this column